Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book Review | The Story of Hollywood: An Illustrated History

Hollywood and Bust

by Thomas Delapa

In the minds of most, “Hollywood” has always been much more of a mythic idea than a real place. For nearly a century, it has been the world’s film capital—glitzy dream factory, star-studded entertainment center and sinful new Babylon all rolled and reeled into one.

Of all the thousands of books on the business, art and history of Hollywood, few have devoted more than a handful of pages to its existence as a community and, since 1910, as a four-square-mile patch of Los Angeles proper. That sparse scene dramatically changed with the 2005 publication of The Story of Hollywood: A Illustrated History, by Gregory Paul Williams. Handsome, meticulous and chock-full of facts and pictures, Williams’ sharp close-up is just the ticket for serious movie fans.

A Hollywood native, author and part-time puppeteer, Williams writes about his home town with love and nostalgia, as well as a clear, incisive eye. For anyone who has seen Hollywood’s urban decline over the past 50 years, this account will at least be a reminder of what’s been lost. Of course, Hollywood hasn’t faded out entirely in its centrality as movie Mecca, but it has shed much of its glitter. Of the legendary major studios that once famously called it home, only Paramount remains.

First claimed from Native Americans by Spain and then Mexico, the area now known as Hollywood was once dubbed Nopalera—after a cactus. Nestled against the Santa Monica Mountains in the sunny Cahuenga Valley, the land was bisected by the Camino Real, the main Spanish trail down the California coast. Soon after California made statehood in 1850, a wave of Anglo settlers from the East began moving in, edging out Mexican landowners. The Southern Pacific Railroad furthered Americanization of the valley, with farmers and ranchers sowing an array of warm-weather crops, especially lemons, figs, grapes and strawberries. Envisioned as a pricey L.A. subdivision by town wheeler-dealer Harvey Wilcox, Nopalera was renamed Hollywood (after an Illinois estate) sometime in the 1880s, with the east-west Hollywood Boulevard surfacing as the main drag.

No one could have imagined that the budding motion-picture industry would take root in these rural boondocks 3000 miles from the East Coast. The year 1907 saw the first film company go far west, joined soon after by the Biograph Company and its great silent director D.W. Griffith. Whether due to the balmy climate, picturesque locations, cheap land or great distance from New York City—and its monopolistic movie syndicates—Hollywood’s environs became America’s fertile crescent for making “flickers.”

Williams’ vivid flashback is splashed with colorful characters, good and bad, backed by a supporting cast of thousands. From the start of the film era, there existed a tension between the puritanical locals and in-migrating movie people (including the predominately Jewish studio moguls), who were treated with suspicion for their freewheeling, often scandalous ways. But with the rise in Hollywood’s wealth, property values and global fame, the locals grudgingly accommodated the new kids on the block. It was Griffith’s incendiary 1915 Civil War blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation, which signaled the ascendancy of American film, with Hollywood as its glittery new capital.

Writing with enthusiasm and simple prose, Williams crafts a narrative as high-minded, melodramatic and tawdry as any Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic. It’s tinted with rose-colored regrets, most especially for the vintage buildings—like the Vine Street Brown Derby—wantonly cut from the heart of the community over the years. Cast as the main villain is the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), a quasi-public organization formed in 1983 that burned through hundreds of millions of dollars in public money in an effort to stem the growing blight.

As several major studios began moving out towards greener L.A. pastures as early as the 1920s—like Warner Bros., to of all places, Burbank—the stars themselves began a westward trek toward swanky Beverly Hills and Bel Air. Even though the burgeoning television and (rock) music industries recharged the production scene in the 1950s and 1960s, Hollywood by the 1980s had morphed into crime-ridden “Hollyweird,” a low-concept urban disaster plot missing a superhero.

Like many a true-life saga, The Story of Hollywood lacks the happy ending that its namesake is famous for. The 21st-century ushered in an upbeat sequel of sorts, starting with the new (now-sponsorless) Kodak Theater, which in 2002 won the Oscars back home for the first time since 1960. A hip, Gen-X-fueled club scene took a bow, with some stars actually returning to reside in dodgy but historic Hollywood. Unlike so many of its grand old theaters, the Pantages (1930) is still in the spotlight, as is Grauman’s Chinese (1927) and the Egyptian (1922), the latter lovingly restored as the non-profit American Cinematheque. The original Charlie Chaplin Studios (1918) has been taken over by the Muppets.

Since its calamitous subway construction in the nineties (compounded by a 1994 earthquake), this onetime citrus grove has dusted off and moved on, and has at least tried to put the brakes on seedy decline. But with the increasing decentralization and digitization of the film industry in the age of the Internet and the indie, Hollywood’s epic run as America’s movie capital may be on its last reel.


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